Jackson Doughart
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Let the province's pick their own senators

Prince Arthur Herald, 06 February 2014

I'm puzzled by the praise being heaped upon Justin Trudeau's bizarre decision to unilaterally remove all Liberal senators from his caucus. The decision is bizarre for a few reasons: First, Trudeau is in no position to implement his desired "non-partisan" process for selecting senators from the pool of Order of Canada laureates, or at least not unless his party is elected next year. Second, there is no chance that the ejected senators will cease to be Liberals in spirit and voting preference, regardless of their official affiliation. In fact, there seems to be no intention that the contrary be in the case. Third, if Trudeau loses the 2015 election, he will be even further behind in his effort to reshape the senate, given that all new appointees would nevertheless be Conservative members, irrespective of this move.

As for the approbative reaction, there certainly exists a faction of commentators who are determined to shield the dauphin from criticism, knowing that an accumulation of missteps could damage his electoral chances. More valiant, and thankfully more numerous however, are those who have grown frustrated with the consistent embarrassment of the senate, seeking to praise any reform proposal that doesn't involve the dead-in-the-water suggestions of abolition or constitutional reformulation. "Do you have a better idea?" would seem to be an accurate summary.

This isn’t even an argument, as it doesn’t begin to offer a rational or empirical defense of Trudeau’s decision. In fact, all indications are that it will have no influence on the project of senate reform, and that it will ultimately be remembered as a political stunt. This, however, is part of the move’s innate appeal. Trudeau’s ultimate advantage, aside from being the son of Pierre Trudeau, is that he is not only distinct from Stephen Harper existentially and partisanly, but also tactically. When the current prime minister gets himself into trouble, his instinct is to hunker down, hold his cards tightly, and minimize any risk. He is, in other words, Machiavellian in the strictest sense. Young Trudeau is the opposite: he excels, and even relishes, at taking risks, boldly putting himself in the proverbial line of fire. People like this and hope that he succeeds.

But to answer the question — “Do you have a better idea?” — I can promptly answer “yes”. But before delivering it, I’ll have to clear a couple of things first. Primarily, any worthwhile proposal will have to work under the presumption that the audience wants the Senate for something. So the people who want the upper chamber to be abolished, and therefore advocate that its powers simply be taken away as much as possible in lieu of a constitutional abolition, will have no interest.

Secondly, we need to revisit what it is that the Senate, as originally constructed, was intended for. My understanding of the founding of the country is that the upper chamber was created for two main reasons: the first was to make Canada a so-called “mixed regime”, whereby the Senate would provide for a cap on “excessive democracy”; the second was to create a permanent representation for the constituent provincial jurisdictions in the federal parliament, as a counterweight to the House of Commons, which represents the people according to population-based districts. The latter reason is analogous to the rationale behind the United States Senate, in which each state of the union has two representatives, irrespective of its population.

There is an interesting philosophical argument to be had about the first, “excessive democracy” claim. This is whence the call for Order of Canada laureates to comprise the upper house comes, rooted in the idea that political power can be wielded on merit in a way that transcends partisanship and the political spectrum. My problem with this is twofold: first, there is no reason to believe that the most educated, successful, and decorated people in our society are any less partisan or motivated by the vices of political tribalism. When one considers that, in the United States at least, something like 80 per cent of college faculty vote habitually for the Democratic Party, there is cause for alarm. Secondly, the faction in Canadian politics that advocates the replacement of the partisan Senate with a meritocratic, elder-statesman, independent Senate were not saying so when the Left was in power. Their opposition to ideological influence on policy didn’t concern them when it was their ideology that ruled.

This leaves the second argument, which is a far more reliable basis for creating a recommendation for senate reform. The present problem with the upper chamber is not that it is unelected (we already have an elected House of Commons) but that it is wedded to political parties in a way that even the lower house is not. While members of the Commons are in a state of consistently-conflicted loyalties (that of their party, on the one hand, and of their constituents, on the other), senators are not. In fact, there is no reason for senators to make any consideration apart from their party's interest; it is the party that puts them in the chamber, not the provinces that they supposedly represent.

Consider this example: before he got into his expense trouble, Mike Duffy was one of a handful of senators floating the balloon of Maritime Union, a concept that is positively loathed among the public in the Maritime provinces, but which is fashionable in central and western Canada. If Duffy had been anything but a partisan shill for the Conservatives, he would have been working to prevent the discussion of Maritime Union, not of advancing it when elected members know well not to go there.

So here's my proposal: let the provinces pick their senators from now on. That is to say, make it a convention that the prime minister appoint open senate positions solely on the advice of the province whose position is to be filled. And the provinces themselves can decide how to arrive at their appointment. If Quebec wants to give the decision to the premier alone, while Ontario wants the matter approved by its provincial legislature, while Alberta wants to have a special election, so be it. This would put the power of appointment back in the rightful hands of the provinces, remove the partisan game of senate appointments, and above all allow for a reform to the Senate without a change in the constitution.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com